How to Dispose of Unused Medicines I

Consumer Health Information
How to Dispose of
Unused Medicines
s your medicine cabinet filled with expired
drugs or medications you no longer use?
How should you dispose of them?
Most drugs can be thrown in the household trash, but
consumers should take certain precautions before tossing
them out, according to the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). A few drugs should be flushed down the toilet.
And a growing number of community-based “take-back”
programs offer another safe disposal alternative.
Guidelines for Drug Disposal
FDA worked with the White House Office of National
Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop the first
consumer guidance for proper disposal of prescription
drugs. Issued by ONDCP in February 2007, the federal
guidelines are summarized here:
• Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug
label or patient information that accompanies the
medication. Do not flush prescription drugs down
the toilet unless this information specifically instructs
you to do so.
• If no instructions are given, throw the drugs in the
household trash, but first:
• Take them out of their original containers and mix
them with an undesirable substance, such as used
coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will
be less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go
through your trash.
• Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other
container to prevent the medication from leaking
or breaking out of a garbage bag.
Photo Illustration: FDA/Michael Ermarth
Take drugs out of their original containers and mix them with
an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds …
1 / FDA Consumer Health Infor mat ion / U. S. Food and Drug Administrat ion
Consumer Health Information
• Take advantage of community drug
take-back programs that allow the
public to bring unused drugs to a
central location for proper disposal.
Call your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service (see blue pages in phone
book) to see if a take-back program is
available in your community.
FDA’s Director of Pharmacy Affairs,
Ilisa Bernstein, Pharm.D., J.D., offers
some additional tips:
• B efore throwing out a medicine
container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription
label to make it unreadable. This
will help protect your identity and
the privacy of your personal health
• Do not give medications to friends.
Doctors prescribe drugs based on
a person’s specific symptoms and
medical history. A drug that works
for you could be dangerous for
someone else.
• When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.
Bernstein says the same disposal methods for prescription drugs could apply
to over-the-counter drugs as well.
Why the Precautions?
Disposal instructions on the label are
part of FDA’s “risk mitigation” strategy, says Capt. Jim Hunter, R.Ph.,
M.P.H., Senior Program Manager on
FDA’s Controlled Substance Staff.
When a drug contains instructions
to flush it down the toilet, he says,
it’s because FDA, working with the
manufacturer, has determined this
method to be the most appropriate
route of disposal that presents the
least risk to safety.
About a dozen drugs, such as powerful narcotic pain relievers and other
controlled substances, carry instructions for flushing to reduce the danger
of unintentional use or overdose and
illegal abuse.
For example, the fentanyl patch, an
adhesive patch that delivers a potent
pain medicine through the skin, comes
with instructions to flush used or leftover patches. Too much fentanyl can
cause severe breathing problems and
lead to death in babies, children, pets,
and even adults, especially those who
have not been prescribed the drug.
“Even after a patch is used, a lot of
the drug remains in the patch,” says
Hunter, “so you wouldn’t want to throw
something in the trash that contains a
powerful and potentially dangerous
narcotic that could harm others.”
Environmental Concerns
Despite the safety reasons for flushing
drugs, some people are questioning
the practice because of concerns about
trace levels of drug residues found in
surface water, such as rivers and lakes,
and in some community drinking
water supplies. However, the main
way drug residues enter water systems
is by people taking medications
and then naturally passing them
through their bodies, says Raanan
Bloom, Ph.D., an Environmental
Assessment Expert in FDA’s Center for
Drug Evaluation and Research. “Most
drugs are not completely absorbed or
metabolized by the body, and enter
the environment after passing through
waste water treatment plants.”
A company that wants FDA to
approve its drug must submit an
application package to the agency.
FDA requires, as part of the application package, an assessment of how
the drug’s use would affect the environment. Some drug applications
are excluded from the assessment
requirement, says Bloom, based on
previous agency actions.
“For those drugs for which environmental assessments have been
required, there has been no indication
of environmental effects due to flushing,” says Bloom. In addition, according to the Environmental Protection
Agency, scientists to date have found
no evidence of adverse human health
effects from pharmaceutical residues in
the environment.
Nonetheless, FDA does not want
to add drug residues into water systems unnecessarily, says Hunter. The
2 / FDA Consumer Health Infor mat ion / U. S. Food and Drug Administrat ion
agency reviewed its drug labels to
identify products with disposal directions recommending flushing or disposal down the sink. This continuously revised listing can be found at
FDA’s Web page on Disposal By Flushing of Certain Unused Medicines (see
link under For More Information).
Another environmental concern
lies with inhalers used by people who
have asthma or other breathing problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Traditionally, many
inhalers have contained chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), a propellant that
damages the protective ozone layer.
The CFC inhalers are being phased
out and replaced with more environmentally friendly inhalers.
Depending on the type of product and where you live, inhalers and
aerosol products may be thrown into
household trash or recyclables, or may
be considered hazardous waste and
require special handling. Read the
handling instructions on the label, as
some inhalers should not be punctured
or thrown into a fire or incinerator. To
ensure safe disposal, contact your local
trash and recycling facility.
This article appears on FDA’s
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For More Information
Disposal By Flushing of Certain
Unused Medicines
SMARxT Disposal Campaign
Albuterol Inhalers: Time to